...Seeing the Essence...

By: Susan Van Dongen

Stephen M. Rice (www.stephenrice.net) finds emotional sanctuary in the artwork that emerges from his Zen practice.

(Above, "Woman with Birds," acrylic on masonite, by Stephen M. Rice.)

------------------------------------------------------------------------   One of the central ideas in Buddhism is that life is a classroom and the main subject is suffering. As much as we don't like it, without these challenges we don't gain the wisdom to graduate to the next level of consciousness.

   That's why you won't find any happy little trees in the paintings and drawings of Stephen M. Rice. His works are more likely to reflect his thoughts, surroundings and emotions, expressed through muted colors and enigmatic subject matter.

   "I don't talk about or explain where my paintings come from, I let other people figure out what they mean to themselves," says Mr. Rice, 47. "If someone else is suffering, they'll recognize the same feelings I've had."

   Just like the yin and yang symbol associated with Eastern philosophies, Mr. Rice is a study in opposites, yet has found a way to integrate his very different interests. In addition to being an artist, he is a dedicated student and practitioner of Buddhist meditation. He is also a commercial truck driver who works an average of 60 hours a week. Thus, the time he spends drawing and painting is precious.

   "It's something I need to do, it's a passion," he says. "That's why the paintings I make are so personal. If I'm going to take the time to paint, it has to mean something special to me."

   In many of Mr. Rice's works, the mysterious figures seem to float against a rough-textured background. The paints look like they've been applied with vigor and thickly, an optical illusion, according to the artist.

   "It's actually thin layers of acrylic on masonite," he says. "I prime the surface with gesso and other polymer products to give it that texture. I also use color as a directive more so than a decoration, which people sometimes don't understand. Color can distract, and I'm more interested in people seeing what I'm trying to say with the subject matter."

   Born in 1955 near Chicago, Mr. Rice lives in Rockaway in North Jersey. He says he always had an interest in art and was especially moved by the simplicity and passion of Ben Shahn's paintings. After moving east, Mr. Rice studied art at Monmouth College but prefers to say he is mostly self-taught.

   "I realized that studying under established artists was actually detrimental to my artistic development," writes Mr. Rice in his artist's statement. "At college I was heading down a conservative path, studying and trying to replicate the American Impressionists, for example, which really didn't satisfy me."

(Above, "The Bath," acrylic on masonite.)

------------------------------------------------------------------------   He says he appreciates the fundamentals learned at school but prefers to explore his emotions and inner world through his art, instead of copying the masters. He believes this personal expression makes his art more provocative.

   "The first Noble Truth of the Buddha is that there is suffering," Mr. Rice writes. "Essentially, I developed my artistic style from this concept. We are either scratching to get in or clawing our way out in a desperate attempt to find sanctuary."

   Students of Eastern philosophy and meditation know the substantial connection between the mind and body, and learn to listen to their intuition when something physical is out of balance. For Mr. Rice, his soul began to "tell" him that something was suffocating him a few years back.

   "I was going through a rough divorce, but I couldn't talk about it to anybody and I ended up developing asthma," Mr. Rice says. "I was leery of medicine, psychiatrists and talk therapy, so I decided to use my painting as an emotional outlet. It didn't take long before my personal story was taking place right before my eyes. The paintings weren't pretty or decorative, but they were provocative. When I showed people what I was working on, I sensed I was striking a nerve — not theirs, but mine."

   "Eventually, the asthma disappeared, but not all of my problems, which gave me fertile ground for creativity. I wasn't looking to solve my problems through my art, but realized I was on my way to becoming the kind of artist who could mine subject matter from the innermost depths. I liked the discovery of this place."

   Mr. Rice has been practicing transcendental, Zen, Vipassana and other forms of meditation for more than 25 years. He has been on meditation retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass., and at Joshua Tree National Park in California, where he married his second wife, Audrey.

   "It was all silent meditation," Mr. Rice says. "I would sit anywhere from 10 days to a month. The idea is that when you slow the body down, the mind speeds up. When you meditate, you really focus on and see the essence of things. I began to draw and paint there, which also became a kind of meditation for me and helped strengthen my technique and subject matter."

(Sept. 11 inspired Mr. Rice to paint a series of solitary bagpipers,
placed in the depths of a forest or contained in a jar.)

------------------------------------------------------------------------   One of the most cryptic elements in his recent work is the jars in which he places people who appear to be protected rather then trapped. Mr. Rice says these works are his way to remark on the Buddhist concept of stopping time, and that most of the jar paintings came after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York.

   "I walked around for months, feeling the sadness," he says. "We live very close to New York City, and in fact one of our neighbors was (at the World Trade Center) when it happened. It seemed like everyone knew someone who was affected."

   "The jars represent a kind of containment, the way you want to hold on to something — your loved ones or a moment of time. We go along and don't realize how precious life is and it takes a tragedy like (Sept. 11) to bump us out of our security. With the jars, I tried to say, 'Wouldn't it be great to have these cherished feelings in a jar, right there on the shelf where you can always reach them?'"

   Sept. 11 also inspired him to paint a series of solitary bagpipers, placed in the depths of a forest or contained in a jar. Anyone who remembers the funeral coverage of the police and firefighters last year can recall how the musicians with their strange, mournful instruments became symbolic of the sorrow.

   Mr. Rice sketched many of these and other paintings while sitting in traffic jams in the cab of his truck.

   "I try not to waste my time, so I draw a lot when I'm stuck in traffic," he says. "I always have my notebooks with me and I draw in them constantly. Sometimes at the end of the day, I'll have 10 pages of drawings."

   Being a truck driver as well as an artist both tickles and troubles him, especially the bad behavior he sees every day on the road.

   "I see the worst in people when I drive," he says. Mr. Rice is philosophical about his life circumstances right now, though. He does, indeed, drive a truck for a living, but his profession doesn't define him.

   "I might be driving a truck, but at the same time I can create this world of painting."